Matthew 26:74-75 - Peter's Denial of His Lord
Then he began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them 'I don't know the man.' Immediately a rooster crowed ... And he went outside and wept bitterlyMatthew 26:74-75
Evidently in the early hours of Friday morning all this took place. By nine o'clock Jesus would be on the cross. Shortly before this the events in Gethsemane had taken place, and the disciples had forsaken Him. Apparently John and Peter found each other again in the darkness and together followed the procession from a distance as Jesus was taken to the high priest.
Apparently the geographical setting was that of a court. In the Middle East a court was shaped like a circle or horseshoe. At the opening there was a gate. Today people can drive into one with small cars. Inside the court people would often keep themselves warm on a cool night with a fire. On the outer side of the court there were buildings with a walk in front of them. The office of Caiaphas, the high priest, may have been in such a building.
Three times Peter was confronted with the question whether he was one of the followers of Jesus. Hardly had he passed through the gate when a young girl (a slave girl perhaps) looked him over and suspected that he must have been one of Jesus' followers. She asked the question, however, in such a way that she expected a negative answer. He surely couldn't be one of them? And a negative answer she got. By this time Peter must have begun feeling uneasy in these surroundings. But he stayed. He wanted to see what would happen to Jesus, his Master. Soon another girl confronted him with the same matter. But she made a positive statement, saying that this fellow was also one of them. Again Peter denied it, this time with an oath, stating also that he didn't even know the man. But Peter persisted in staying. As he was warming himself by the fire we read that that group of men "labeled" him as one of Jesus' disciples. It was then that Peter denied it with a loud speech, using a curse and an oath, to emphasize what he said. He implied that he had never known Jesus, had never had any contact with Him. His "oath" suggests calling upon God as a witness, that God could curse him if he was not speaking the truth.
This was Peter, one of the twelve and one of the inner circle of three. This was Peter who previously had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. This was the Peter who had been with and lived with Jesus as the Son of God, and learned to love Him dearly.
"How could Peter have done such a thing?" we ask. Why did he do it? Let us be careful that we do not pass judgment upon this terrible deed with a self-righteous attitude.
Was Peter such a coward that he committed this terrible sin? Wasn't he a man of his word when he said that he would never forsake Jesus? He, no doubt, deeply loved the Lord. Why else would he and John have followed the procession? Previously he had also shown that he was a man of his word. When in the garden he cut off Malchus' ear he, no doubt, had in mind to split the man's head in two, killing him. Peter was ready to lay his own life on the line. But how must we then explain this almost unbelievable, sinful deed?
The basic answer to all these questions is that Peter was offended in Jesus. What does that mean? To be offended means that you "stumble" over something and fall into sin. What was the stumbling-block for Peter here? It really was the cross. Jesus gave Himself to be arrested and crucified. He did not resist this. Instead He willingly went this way. Scripture explains it in saying that "as a lamb went to the slaughter, so He opened not His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7).
With this thought in mind let us look at the narrative once again, and take notice of the sequence of events. Matthew mentions the first denial of Peter. Then he "changes the subject" by calling our attention to what was happening to Jesus. He tells us how the court even sought false testimonies against Jesus. Also how the high priest tore his clothes when Jesus confessed that He was the Son of God. Not one word, however, did Jesus speak in His own defense. Thereupon people spit in His face and struck Him with their fists. All laws of decorum and proper conduct in court trials are ignored and flagrantly transgressed. Peter saw this, perhaps at a distance. Was this his Savior? Why didn't He defend Himself at least in some way? He said absolutely nothing in His own defense. Is this the promised Messiah? Is this the king that will occupy the throne of David? Is this a king?
Peter stumbled and fell deeply into sin. This kind of Savior he could not confess before men. And as a result he denied his master in the worst possible way, with cursing and using an oath.
Jesus, who no doubt heard Peter, keenly felt the meaning of this action. How much worse all this was than even what occurred in the garden of Gethsemane? There Peter had by fleeing chosen for himself. Here he took a stand against Jesus. In the garden he and the others didn't say anything, but here he cursed and swore. In Gethsemane he said by implication, "I did know Him, but am leaving Him now." But here he said that he had never known Christ.
There is more. Peter denied it all with an oath. The Jews were apparently always ready to use oaths. Jesus was not. He came to establish a kingdom in which there would be truth and righteousness. In this kingdom God is present. Therefore, we don't need oaths in the kingdom. Here the principle is, let your yes be yes and your no, no. Jesus had taught that oaths in the kingdom were something of sinful flesh. Oaths simply don't belong here. Jesus hated the lie. And oaths are necessary exactly because people do lie. We must see then, that Peter, with the use of his oaths, threw to the wind the teachings of Jesus on this matter; this Jesus must have suffered deeply.
From the record it appears that Jesus was led from Caiaphas just at the time when Peter was swearing these oaths, so that the Lord heard it all. Was this a mere coincidence so that just at this time, a matter perhaps of only one minute, Jesus heard and saw Peter? Of course not. And what did the Lord do when He heard and saw this His disciple? We read first of all that the cock crew. Did this also just happen? We must conclude that the Lord made this rooster crow just at this time. He who walked on the water, and raised the dead could also make, roosters crow. And then the Lord turned around and looked at Peter. How easily the Lord could have ignored it all or turned the other way. Instead, there was that irresistible glance of love that penetrated Peter's soul. In those eyes he likely read the love that came from Jesus' heart, which said to him: "Peter, I still love you." We can be sure that Peter never to his dying day forgot this glance of love from the eyes and heart of his Savior.
He was the "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief," but also a Savior who even at that time showed a love that would never let go of His own.
The procession and trial continued. Those around the fire may have kept on warming themselves and talking about the important event of the night. But none of them had seen what Peter had seen, or "heard" that Gospel of ocean-deep love.
Peter could take it no more. He had to leave. We know nothing of the details that followed. Where Peter went we do not know, but we do know that he "went out and wept bitterly." With deepest sorrow, he relived in his own mind and soul, what he had done and said. If only he could have talked to Jesus once more to confess his wrong. But this opportunity was not given him. Jesus, as far as Peter was concerned, was gone, having died on the cross.
Peter and Judas both committed terrible sins. Jesus mentioned what both of them would do before they committed the deeds. Both were offended in Jesus. There was one big difference, however. Judas' act was premeditated; Peter's was not.
Luke tells us that Jesus knew that Satan had desired to have Peter. He wanted to "sift him," like wheat is sifted, so that Peter would fall into sin, never to return. But the Lord was also in control, as He had been with Job long ago. Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail. That meant that the Lord wanted Peter's faith to come through, in sorrow and confession of sin. Such prayers never go unanswered. Peter was rescued and saved from the clutches of the merciless devil. We don't read that Jesus prayed for Judas, even though He knew what Judas was going to do. Why did He pray for Peter? The only answer can be His elective love. Both made themselves worthy of everlasting damnation. But the love of God rescued and saved Peter.
We have all "sinned and come short of the glory of God," also by denying and being ashamed of our Lord. For us, too, the way out is one of sincere confession of sin, faith and a life of gratitude. But remember that it was and is the love of Christ that moves us to repentance and faith. For Peter that love was so strong, that even when it added immeasurably to His suffering, He did not let go of Peter. That love continues for His people. "Though we oft have sinned against Him, still His love and grace abide."
What a love and what a Savior we have!